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  • The Precarious


    Last week, I told Sara, my social worker, that people are animals ruled by their brain stem, and that I’m no good at self-control.

    Connecting the two seemingly separate thoughts she said, “I don’t think that’s very true of people in general, or you in particular. Victor, you’ve resisted a whole lot of temptations in your life, and because of that, you’re still alive. You’ve got the willpower of a hero.”

    To what end? is what I wanted to ask. Though I didn’t. I only told her about my group meetings for the past month. She took notes and asked questions where appropriate. As well-meaning as she is, as well meant as her words were, I think today will be the day that I prove her wrong, because getting high again is all I can think about.

    I fantasize about mellow highs and shooting up to supernatural levels of happiness as I bag up roach bait, roach spray, and a handful of mouse traps for an old lady. I scan the barcode of the third trap and out of curiosity, lift my head to take a long look at her. Her face says it all: slack dark skin, a lopsided gray and purple wig, and a stoic expression like those paintings of Indians on diner walls. To live in a place that requires this amount of poison requires that kind of attitude. It may be me projecting, but she looks like she may want to get high too. I’ve only got enough money for one though.

    “Credit or debit?” I ask.

    “Cash,” she says, then hands me a few wrinkled fives and singles.

    “One, two, seven…”

    I hand over the change and watch grandma slowly drag herself out by her foldable walker—a set of twin tennis balls covering the back legs. Before she’s even out the door a man wearing clothes streaked in construction caulk begins piling nails and buckets of plaster on my counter. I want to let out a loud groan, but hold it in. That’s a kind of will power, but it isn’t hard won.

    This job is cheap, repetitive, and brain deadening, but even as a child you learn to keep the little disappointments of existence to yourself. I hold in my sigh because what the hell can this guy do about my situation? Not a damn thing. So, what I’m going to do is take two more customers, take myself outside for a smoke and call Clutch. My insides relax, and I fell a little better knowing that I’ll have something to look forward to when I get home.

    Clutch hasn’t heard from me since Jessie died, so I’m sure he’ll be shocked. Or as shocked as a dealer can be receiving a delivery call from an addict. I bag the nails, I bag the brushes, I bag the mesh, I look for Nancy to let her know I’m leaving. With slows movements that betray my fatigue, I place the plastic “closed” sign on my register conveyor belt.

    “I’m gonna take a quick cigarette break,” I tell Nancy when I catch her walking down aisle three. “That cool with you?”

    “It’s whatever. I don’t own this store.”

    “Just wanted to check. I mean, you are my boss now.”

    “It’s only been a few days, and it’s a lead position, not management. I’m still just like you.” She shrugs her petite shoulders, letting her long hair bounce.

    “Um hmm,” I sound off sarcastically with my lips tightly closed, nodding my head. She chuckles.

    She says, “The hell with you.” I smile and she continues, “So what are you up to tonight? You looking for some company?” She raises her eyebrows at me.

    “I believe that’s sexual harassment,” I say.

    “Not really, but we could go there if you wanna.”

    What do I say to that? I wonder. It’s less like a creepy boss trying to get in my pants than it is a crush who doesn’t get that I’m not interested kids half my age. I let the implied message move past me like the wind. I say, “Not doing anything tonight. Just going to try to relax and forget.”

    “About what?”

    “Probably the same stuff you wanna stop thinking about sometimes.”

    “Diapers, bills, work, and rent?”

    “Three out of four, yeah.” I lean against the wall to my left, knowing that I’m being dragged into a conversation when all I want to do is smoke. I say, “You know. Life stuff.”

    “That’s what I mean by some company. You shouldn’t be sitting around moping by yourself.”

    “If your mom had grown up in Harlem instead of Park Hill, I could’ve been your father. What you should do is worry about finishing that GED program you’re in instead of coming to my place after work for not-sexual harassment.”

    Her smirk turns to pursed lips. “That was cold.”

    “I didn’t mean it to be. It’s just the truth.”

    A customer passes by. Nancy waits until they’re out of earshot and says, “You know, being miserable together beats being miserable alone. When you learn that, let me know. Now make that smoke break quick.”

    “You got it,” I say, as I watch her walk away. Nancy’s got a face like a bulldog, but an ass like a donkey. While staring at it like I’ve never seen a woman body’s before, I feel a little guilty. Mainly because I do wanna take her up on her offer. Also, because she sounds like Sara when she mentioned being miserable while alone. They’re both right, but I can’t think of any solutions outside what I’ve already been doing for the last few months. Going home to a dingy basement apartment with evening plans that are almost always the same: I sit and watch TV, maybe I beat off, I eat apples and fast food hamburgers, and wish that things had turned out a little differently.

    I wish the same now as I walk towards to front door. I think about those points in time where life changed forever, where animal instincts lead me down a different path—a path of dead lovers and donkey-ass bosses. Standing outside I light up. A few puffs of smoke later, I call Clutch.

    “Who this?”


    “Victor? Aw damn, I haven’t heard from you in a minute. What’s good?”

    “Nothing’s good. That’s why I’m calling.”

    “I got you. I’ll bring something to Jessie’s place.”

    I pause as the image of Jessie’s half-naked and twitching body being pulled into an ambulance is forced to the top of my mind. Against my will, I see the shock in her eyes and the blood on her face as the emergency worker closes the doors before driving off.

    “Jessie died,” I say. “Last year. August twenty third, she died.”

    “Wha? Makes sense now why I hadn’t heard from her.” He’s silent for a while then says, “It wasn’t my stuff though. I can guarantee that. I don’t mess around with that fenty that dudes put in their pack.”

    “I’m not the cops, man. I’m not saying nothing about nothing. I just need a delivery.”

    “Yeah, cool.”


    “Yeah.” Another pause. Before I hang up, he asks, “What happened though?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Jess was my homegirl. We went to PS 74 together, you know. She was fly back in the day. How she die?”

    I take a pull and try to narrow the night’s events down to a few sentences. The squalid conditions we were living in, the loss of human life, the addiction that led me to get high the night after she died. At the same time, I laugh to myself about the gall of a drug dealer asking what happened to his homegirl/client. I almost do laugh until I remind myself that he’s human too.

    “It’s just what you think. We were at her place. I pass out around three in the morning but wake up to her screaming her head off—the needle still in her arm. She was shooting up the whole night while I was sleeping. I call 911, and they take her away. She dies at the hospital, and my social worker puts me in rehab again. Fourteen months later I’m calling you.”

    “Damn. Aight, well, I’ll see you later today. Just text me the address and the time.”

    “Will do. Later.”


    I put the phone in my back pocket and take several more slow drags from the cigarette. I remember the first time I smoked one. I exhale and picture high school freshman me. A skinny me eating corner store bags of chips and thinking life was just a series of karate chops to the face. I was alone and took the offer of a lit cigarette from a group of kids who made me feel less so. Same with dope. I was too scared to be in my own head, in my own life, so I needed something to take refuge in and a group to do it with.

    Thinking back to that stupid kid, what would I tell him? I think hard about it on my last exhale of smoke and come up with a handful of dust. No wisdom gained since, except maybe this: nothing good comes from letting desires rule you.

    I wouldn’t have listened though. I’m still not listening.

    I fling the cigarette into the manicured bushes of the parking lot and walk back inside.

    The rest of the day goes as expected with customer after customer running their life’s desires through my register. Lumber, hammer, paint. I joke with Nancy who’s back to being friendly. Pipes, spigots, screws. I wish my life wasn’t so dead. Wood polish, sandpaper, more roach poison. I think about the bag of dope waiting for me, the highlight of my day.

    Soon it’s time to leave. Nancy walks in as I’m changing shirts in the break room. I usually make the switch in the bathroom, but I was hoping to get the five-second action finished quick so I could head out. She walks in as I pull down my regular, non-logoed, long sleeve shirt.

    “You stay in pretty good shape,” she says with a smile.

    “I eat a lot of apples,” I laugh. “Trying to keep the doctor away.”

    Her smile slowly disappears when she says, “You’re not afraid of needles though. I can see that too.” I suck in my lips and say nothing as she looks at me with a mixture of concern and the kind of seen-it-all attitude that only comes with growing up in one of New York City’s pockets of poverty.

    “Maybe I am afraid of needles now,” I say. “But I haven’t seen one in more than a year, so I couldn’t tell you.”

    “That’s good to hear. You going to a group or something?”

    “Yeah. Once every other Thursday. Tomorrow I meet with my social worker.”

    “Good. You too good looking to die on some BS.”

    “Thanks,” I chuckle. “Look, I don’t need everyone knowing my business, understand what I mean?”

    “I feel you.” As I walk past her towards the door, she says, “Just be careful.”

    I avoid her comment with, “See you tomorrow, Nancy. Try being on time for once.”

    “I would. But like you said, life.”

    Leaving the store toward the parking lot I get on my bus, and take a short, twisting ride home where I wait for Clutch to deliver a small amount of some mediocre dope that will work the magic I’ve been waiting for all day; all week; all of this year,.

    The drop off is unceremonious. I open the door to let him into my small studio.

    “What’s up?” he asks.

    “Same ole,” I say.

    “Cool. You know what it is.”

    I hand him a wad of money that he counts right in front of me. Satisfied he says, “Cool,” and walks out the door to leave me to whatever might happen. He’s only human.

    I place the small square baggie on the coffee table and look at it while the local news plays in the background.

    “A man from North Carolina was arrested today with a car full of guns after he was seen carefully placing bullets on the ground outside Fort Wadsworth. According to prosecutors, John Hope set 12-gauge shotgun shells on the ground outside the former military base. When officers approached him, he said, ‘I have guns in the car. Go ahead and check.’ Officers then discovered a loaded Mossberg 12-gauge shotgun.

    “Hope served in the U.S. Army, though law enforcement sources say it’s not clear in what capacity. The same sources say Hope may have mental health…”

    I think about a hot spoon, and the moment of relief that’ll come when things slow down, and the outside world is cut off. I think about Nancy and how I should call her over. I picture her face buried in my pillow, and her fat butt smashing against my hips. I’d stroke that perfect body of hers until her legs go numb, and then I’d get high until I couldn’t feel anything either. I want to indulge in everything that’s good. Anything that will keep my mind flooded with good feelings.

    I keep looking at the baggie and can’t, for the life of me, think of anything that would give me a reason not to stick this dope into my veins all at once. I lean back into the couch and close my eyes. The metal springs under the thin fabric poke me in the back. I try not to feel them, but I do, and as I try to conjure up Jessie’s face, they continue to poke at me.

    I eventually see her, the way she was before we got in too heavy with the drugs. My mind’s eye scans the contours of her cheeks and chin, the tight curls of her short afro. I move on to her button nose and full lips. I rest on her light brown eyes. The only way I can see her is in my head, but her being dead means she doesn’t say much. Or a better way to say it is that what she says are the things she told me years ago. Our conversations replay in my mind, snarky comments and all.

    The only new thing she has for me is that maybe, with me continually dredging up her memory, being dead is just as much work as being alive. That sounds like something she’d say. I laugh as I open my eyes again.

    With a little effort, I grunt myself off the couch and walk to the bathroom, holding the packet. I stand over the toilet for a few seconds, looking at my hand as it trembles. Eventually, I drop the baggie in the bowl and flush it away with a moan that, if someone else had heard it, might’ve given the impression that I was in pain. In reality, I’m relieved, and I’m alive. For what that’s worth.

    I grab my phone along with my jacket and decide to head out to the park. I want some fresh air and maybe some sunshine if I’m lucky. I slide my left arm through the sleeve and pull up Sara’s number with my right hand—my still trembling hand. I hope she’ll pick up and tell me some things that I need to hear right now. As I open the door, I see a sky that couldn’t be more gray. I pause for a moment, but slowly, and with all the energy I can muster, I will myself to close the door behind me. I steel my body for an afternoon colder than the one I expected and head out.


    About The Author

    Alex Clermont

    Alex Clermont is a native New Yorker and the author of You, Me and the Rest of Us: #NewYorkStories, Eating Kimchi and Nodding Politely, and dozens of several short stories that have appeared in literary journals and anthologies including, Black Elephant, The aois21 Annual, Foliate Oak, and Out of Place. Alex writes literary stories about fictional people with real problems.”